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Low-CO2 food labeling will be the next ‘low fat’ craze

Meat substitute Quorn is about to start labeling the carbon footprint of its foods. This could change the way we shop forever.

Low-CO2 food labeling will be the next ‘low fat’ craze
[Illustration: FC]

Cheeseburgers may be delicious, but they have a terrible environmental footprint. Look away from the 660 gallons of water that a single, third-of-a-pound beef patty takes to produce, and the CO2 output from one Big Mac alone is still the equivalent of burning half a gallon of gas. These stats are bad enough to make carnivores nauseous, but the environmental impact of the foods we eat is largely invisible. Or it was, until now.

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In what could prove to be a landmark marketing scheme, the Phillippine-owned fake meat producer Quorn—perhaps known best for its viral vegan sausage rolls in the U.K. and chicken-less nuggets in the U.S.—will begin labeling 30 of its most popular products, not simply with federally mandated Nutrition Facts but with a full disclosure of the food’s CO2 footprint.

The CO2 labeling is a completely voluntary move, meant to highlight the fact that Quorn’s proprietary protein mix puts out greenhouse emissions that are 90% lower than beef. (Quorn is the first meat alternative to label its products this way, but it should be noted, Whole Foods currently labels its meat with a somewhat simplified, color-numeric sustainability rating to help shoppers weigh the merits of grass-fed beef and wild-caught fish.) While Quorn has partnered with the Carbon Trust to independently audit and improve its products since 2012, 2020 will be the first year that the company is sharing this information directly onto food packaging itself.

[Image: courtesy Quorn]

So what does the packaging actually look like? For now, it’s a great idea but a missed opportunity. Above the nutrition information, Quorn is printing this statement in bold: “The carbon footprint for the full lifecycle of this Quorn product is 0.16kg per serving.” As of now, this statement can easily be lost in the other info on the back, like product preparation. You’re also left wondering, “So, is 0.16kg good? It must be good, right? But how good?” Quorn brought prose to an infographic fight.

In fact, another graphic that Quorn is sharing to promote this new initiative is far more effective than what’s actually going to be printed on its packaging. This other graphic shows a shopping basket full of proteins and fresh produce, each of which is labeled with their carbon output. With this comparative graphic, the consumer can instantly place the impact of Quorn somewhere between bananas and tomatoes, but well below chicken and vastly below than beef. In this comparative treatment, Quorn looks downright virtuous.

Quorn says its labeling is only the beginning, and in its latest press release points out that no Recommended Daily Allowance exists for someone’s CO2 consumption as it does for calories or saturated fats. Of course, such a policy wouldn’t behoove the powerful beef and dairy lobbies, so it’s frightfully easy to imagine those organizations successfully snuffing out any government guidelines for CO2 in food. But given that diets low in animal products really do make a smaller environmental impact than those filled with meat and cheese, and given that up to 80% of consumers report wanting companies to act more sustainably, don’t be surprised if you see vegetarian and vegan foods lean heavier into this sort of voluntary labeling in the near future.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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